J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York emerges from Democratic caucus before the Keystone XL pipeline vote at the Capitol in Washington, Nov. 18. In a speech at the National Press Club Tuesday in Washington, the Senate's third-ranking Democrat said that Democrats performed poorly in this month's midterm elections in part because they let Republicans portray government as a drag on society rather than a potential force for good. Senator Schumer said Democrats were too intent on passing the Affordable Care Act and should have been more focused on jobs and the economy for the middle class.

Is Chuck Schumer cutting Republicans' attack ads for them?

Sen. Chuck Schumer, the third-ranking Democrat in the Senate, suggested during a speech Tuesday that Congress's focus on passing the Affordable Care Act compromised his party's efforts to restore the economy.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D) of New York says his party made a mistake by pushing to pass Obamacare in 2010.

That’s right: The third-ranking Democrat in the Senate says that expending legislative energy on President Obama’s health-care bill was an unforced error. It used up too much time and distracted the White House and its legislative allies from continuing efforts to bolster the economy, which should have been their top priority, according to Senator Schumer.

Worse, the Affordable Care Act did not help that many people who actually vote, Schumer said. Only about a third of the uninsured at the time the bill passed were registered to vote, and only a fraction of that third actually voted, he said.

“After passing the stimulus, Democrats should have continued to propose middle class-oriented programs and built on the partial success of the stimulus,” said Schumer in an appearance Tuesday at the National Press Club. “But unfortunately, Democrats blew the opportunity the American people gave them."

Wow, is Schumer right in this instance? He’s said in the past that he would have picked a different time to push the Affordable Care Act, but to repeat the argument now seems to be a conscious break with Obama administration orthodoxy.

If nothing else, he’s making Republicans gleeful. They’re holding up Schumer’s comments as yet more evidence that Obamacare shouldn’t have passed in the first place.

“So the Democrat Party got Schumered today,” tweeted Joe Pounder, president of America Rising, a GOP opposition research political-action committee.

Mr. Pounder linked to a video of Schumer’s speech and said, “we’ll be using this a lot.” Presumably, he meant that they’d be using it a lot in attack ads aimed at Democrats in 2016.

At its heart, Schumer’s view of how Democrats need to alter their image to win in 2016 is relatively widely held in Washington. The party thinks it needs to win over the broad swath of middle- and lower-income voters whose pay has stagnated for years.

Republicans want to be that party, too. They just have different ideas as to how to proceed. They would not agree with Schumer that an embrace of “strong and active government” is the answer.

“Conservatives certainly will disagree with Schumer on many of his policy proposals to boost the middle class. But in terms of his basic political critique – and the failure of both parties to substantively address middle-class anxieties – Schumer is spot on,” writes John Fund in the right-leaning National Review Online.

But did Obamacare really get in the way of Democrats doing more for the middle class?

Remember the context: 2009 was the year of huge government relief programs. The TARP financial bailout bill had passed in the last months of the Bush presidency. Mr. Obama signed a big stimulus bill that included everything from tax cuts to teacher pay and highway programs.

There was talk of a second round of stimulus. But the appetite for more spending wasn’t there, among either then-majority congressional Democrats or Republicans. If Obamacare got in the way, what did it get in the way of?

The health-care reforms of the Affordable Care Act had been a Democratic priority for years, maybe decades, despite the relatively small number of voters they would directly benefit. That’s caused some progressives to bristle at Schumer’s utilitarian analysis of what the party should have done with its Senate and House majorities in the first years of the Obama era.

“We don’t live in a magical world where the Democrats could have passed immigration reform in 2009 and health care reform on the eve of the 2010 midterms,” writes Martin Longman in the left-leaning Washington Monthly. “Some things couldn’t wait and other things had to wait, and still other things never got done because the opportunity to do them was crowded out by the economic crisis.”

As 2016 nears, it will be interesting to see whether other top Democrats begin to agree with Schumer’s view here.

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